The Parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin: Luke 15.1–10
All the tax-collectors and sinners were coming close to listen to Jesus. 2The Pharisees and the legal experts were grumbling. ‘This fellow welcomes sinners!’ they said. ‘He even eats with them!’
So Jesus told them this parable. 4‘Supposing one of you has a hundred sheep,’ he said, ‘and you lose one of them. What will you do? Why, you’ll leave the ninety-nine out in the countryside, and you’ll go off looking for the lost one until you find it! 5And when you find it, you’ll be so happy – you’ll put it on your shoulders 6and come home, and you’ll call your friends and neighbours in. “Come and have a party!” you’ll say. “Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!”
‘Well, let me tell you: that’s how glad they will be in heaven over one sinner who repents – more than over ninety-nine righteous people who don’t need repentance.
Or supposing a woman has ten drachmas and loses one of them. What will she do? Why, she’ll light a lamp, and sweep the house, and hunt carefully until she finds it! 9And when she finds it she’ll call her friends and neighbours in. “Come and have a party!” she’ll say. “Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost coin!”
Well, let me tell you: that’s how glad God’s angels feel when a single sinner repents.’
We had just moved house, to a dream location: quiet, secluded, at the end of a road near a lake. Everything seemed peaceful. Then, on the first Saturday night we were there, all chaos broke loose. Loud music, amplified voices making announcements, cheers, fireworks – all going on well into the small hours, keeping our young children awake. We were appalled. Was this going to hap- pen every weekend? Where was the noise coming from? Why had nobody told us about this before we bought the house?
In the morning, the explanations came. No, it wasn’t a regular occurrence. It would only happen once a year. It was the local Yacht Club’s annual party, celebrating some great event in the sailing calendar. We returned to tranquillity. But it left me thinking about how one person’s celebration can be really annoying for someone else, especially if they don’t understand the reason for the party.
The three parables in Luke 15 are told because Jesus was making a habit of having celebration parties with all the ‘wrong’ people, and some others thought it was a night- mare. All three stories are ways of saying: ‘This is why we’re celebrating! Wouldn’t you have a party if it was you? How could we not?’ In and through them all we get a wide- open window on what Jesus thought he was doing – and, perhaps, on what we ourselves should be doing.
At the heart of the trouble was the character of the people Jesus was eating with on a regular basis. The tax- collectors were disliked not just because they were tax-collectors – nobody much likes them in any culture – but because they were collecting money for either Herod or the Romans, or both, and nobody cared for them at all. And if they were in regular contact with Gentiles, some might have considered them unclean.
The ‘sinners’ are a more general category, and people disagree as to who precisely they were. They may just have been people who were too poor to know the law properly or to try to keep it (see John 7.49). Certainly they were people who were regarded by the self-appointed experts as hopelessly irreligious, out of touch with the demands that God had made on Israel through the law.
Throughout the chapter Jesus is not saying that such people were simply to be accepted as they stand. Sinners must repent and renew their lives by becoming more closely attuned to God. Jesus has a different idea from his critics of what ‘repentance’ means. For them, nothing short of adopting their standards of purity and law-observance would do. For Jesus, when people follow him and his way, that is the true repentance. And – he doesn’t say so in so many words, but I think it’s there by implication – the Pharisees and legal experts themselves need to repent in that way. ‘Righteous persons who don’t need to repent’ indeed (verse 7)! Try saying the sentence with a smile and a question-mark in your voice and you will, I think, hear what Jesus intended.
The point of the parables is then clear. This is why there’s a party going on: all heaven is having a party, the angels are joining in, and if we don’t have one as well we’ll be out of tune with God’s reality.
In the stories of the sheep and the coin, the punch line in each case depends on the Jewish belief that the two halves of God’s creation, heaven and earth, were meant to fit together and be in harmony with each other. If you discover what’s going on in heaven, you’ll discover how things were meant to be on earth. That, after all, is the point of praying that God’s kingdom will come ‘on earth as in heaven’. As far as the legal experts and Pharisees were concerned, the closest you could get to heaven was in the Temple; the Temple required strict purity from the priests; and the closest that non-priests could get to copying heaven was to maintain a similarly strict purity in every aspect of life. But now Jesus was declaring that heaven was having a great, noisy party every time a single sinner saw the light and began to follow God’s way. If earth-dwellers wanted to copy the life of heaven, they’d have a party too. That’s what Jesus was doing.